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Wasatch County Council offers conditional funding of Heber airport

The Heber Valley Airport services private flights south of downtown Heber City.
Ben Lasseter
A planning process to upgrade the Heber Valley Airport to comply with Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations is underway.

With a major decision on the Heber Valley Airport looming, the Wasatch County Council wants to prevent the city from approving major upgrades. And it’s “putting its money where its mouth is.”

Heber’s city council plans to vote on a milestone for the future of its airport next week. But the Wasatch County Council wants it to delay that vote and may be willing to pay big money to get involved in the decision-making process.

The Federal Aviation Administration says Heber City’s airport is out of compliance with safety regulations for many of the planes that regularly use it. As a result, the FAA has directed Heber City to plan safety upgrades.

If the city doesn’t, the airport website says it would lose future FAA funding and could even be sued by the FAA for not maintaining certain safety standards. The FAA has paid for major projects like runway improvements. Federal contributions ranged from less than $10,000 in 2017 to over $3 million in 2015.

So how much could the city lose in the years to come without the FAA? Heber City’s elected leaders have conflicting estimates.

On Wednesday, Heber Mayor Heidi Franco told the Wasatch County Council she estimated the loss to be up to $600,000 a year, plus inflation. She asked the county council if it would help the city with those costs.

Councilmembers said they believed that’s what the majority of residents would want, but much is unclear about the cost.

“What is it that we want in Wasatch County long-term?” said Councilmember Danny Goode. “It seems like Wasatch County could pay up to $500,000 a year for up to a decade. We might be able to afford that. Are the citizens going to want that long-term? Maybe not. Do the citizens want it today? Probably.”

Ultimately, the county council agreed to send a letter to the city council stating the county “is willing to contribute significant, ongoing funds for the maintenance and operation of the airport.” It didn’t specify an exact amount.

County Manager Dustin Grabau said taking on a new annual six-figure cost might not require residents to pay new taxes but could defund other county projects.

To comply with FAA standards, airport engineering consultants have proposed a new runway farther from U.S. Highway 189 and larger buffer zones.

On Tuesday, the city council plans to vote whether to keep studying that design. County council members said they hoped the city would delay that vote until the two governments have a chance to figure out possible cost-sharing terms.

Scott Phillips, a Heber City councilman and member of the airport advisory board, said he doubted the city council would delay the vote — partly because it’s not the final decision of whether to upgrade the airport, but also because he said there’s more to the issue.

“I think it's a great gesture from the county,” Phillips said. “I'm not sure that they're getting the full story on how much it's going to cost if we were to go away from partnering with the FAA.”

According to Phillips, airport consultants estimate not meeting FAA standards could cost $48 million over the next 20 years.

“We are trying our best to get the correct information out there,” he said, “but there are people like Mayor Franco that decide that they want to give their own information, which does not align with what we've been given from our lawyers and the experts. It's very difficult to combat campaigns of misinformation with true information.”

Phillips said Franco’s goal to oust the FAA would expose the city to lawsuits by the federal government and other parties that have business contracts lasting up to another 30 years.

Monday at 6 p.m., the city council will hold a meeting with the community at the Heber City Public Safety Building. Phillips said that meeting will break down why $48 million is the cost estimate.

An agendafor the meeting says it will also cover the other options the city is considering and invite community members to speak and ask questions.

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